Photo by Miguel Salazar, Team Usyk
Aleksandr Usyk (11-0, 10 KO’s) is one of the most successful boxers in the world.
Beyond winning a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics, he’s also the WBO cruiserweight champion, having broken Evander Holyfield’s division record by winning a major title in just his 10th professional fight.
And he’s visually striking too.
The gap-toothed, tattooed Ukrainian can often be seen with his blonde hair in a chupryna—a traditional Cossack style that involves shaving the sides of one’s head and allowing one thick lock to fall forward or to the side from the top. (It’s not all that different from the devilock famously worn by Misfits bassist Jerry Only).
What’s more, Usyk is downright vicious. A typical combination from the southpaw involves knifing jabs that give way to perfectly-timed left hooks. But for all the precision, he fights like he’s out for revenge or something, which might be why he’s knocked out 10 of 11 opponents.
“I think people would like to see my fights,” assured Usyk through a translator ahead of Saturday’s title defense against Michael Hunter (12-0, 8 KO’s) at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD.
Usyk may have been referring to all people, but more specifically, he’s really talking about Americans. The native of Crimea already has a following around the Black Sea, where his gold medal made him popular among increasingly nationalistic Ukrainians. And it didn’t hurt that he danced the Ukrainian “hopak” after beating Italy’s Clemente Russo in the finals.
But to properly capitalize on his talent and professional momentum, Usyk needs American audiences, which is why he’s fighting stateside on HBO for the second time this Saturday, ahead of Ukrainian superstar Vasyl Lomachenko’s WBO super featherweight title defense against Jason Sosa.
“It’s very important a very important fight for me, for the fans to see me here,” Usyk said.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” said K2 Promotions’ Tom Loeffler, who handled unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin’s career in a similar way.
Golovkin first developed a reputation as a knockout artist while primarily fighting in Germany for the first few years of his professional career. From there he began making a few stateside appearances, and with the help of HBO, soon became one of the biggest names in boxing.
“It’s the second time he’s on an HBO telecast,” Loeffler said of Usyk. “A lot of people were anticipating the first fight he had over here after winning the title in Poland [against Krzysztof Glowacki]… Similar to Golovkin, there was a lot of people that heard about Usyk and they were excited to see him fight. So we got a good reaction for his debut on HBO. Now, following up, coming back and fighting an undefeated U.S. Olympian, Michael Hunter, so you can feel the recognition building for his second fight.”
And Hunter isn’t a pushover.
He’s landed an average of 20.6 punches per round over his last three fights, according to CompuBox, which is 5.1 more than the average cruiserweight. He also lands 13.6 power punches per round, compared to just 9.4 for Usyk over his last six fights.
Still, nobody is busier than Usyk, who threw a cruiserweight record 99 jabs in the second round of his win over Andrei Kniazev. And he’s not easy to hit either. Usyk’s last six opponents connected on just 12.3% of their total punches and 21.9% of their power shots (the cruiserweight averages are 30% and 37.5%, respectively).
Hunter landed an impressive 44.4% of his power shots over his last three fights, according to CompuBox, but he hasn’t faced the same level of competition that Usyk has.
And therein lies the dilemma for Usyk: the cruiserweight division doesn’t offer a lot of well-known opponents.
Like Holyfield, many have used the cruiserweight division as a back door to the upper echelon of the more profitable heavyweight division. And at 6-3, Usyk certainly has the frame to move up in weight.
But for all of the opportunities above 200 pounds, Usyk would rather unify the titles in what Loeffler believes is an overlooked division.
“Being honest with you, I’m only thinking about what I’m going to do right now, April 8,” Usyk said, later dismissing the idea of moving to heavyweight by saying, “When I eat, I don’t put a lot of food into my mouth.”
“It is a very deep, talent-rich division,” Loeffler said of the cruiserweight division. “With just a little bit of exposure, it can really become one of the hotter divisions over here in the United States. It has traditionally been the Europeans and Eastern Europeans who really dominated the division. Most of the fights took place in Europe. [American] Steve Cunningham, when he was coming up as a top cruiserweight, he had to go to Europe to get the bigger fights. I think with the right amount of exposure, it can really heat up over here.”
But that’s no sure thing.
Cruiserweight stalwart Tony Bellew recently moved up to heavyweight to beat David Haye, and potential fights against Latvia’s Mairis Briedis (22-0), Russia’s Murat Gassiev (24-0), or Germany’s Marco Huck might not really move the needle for Usyk—at least not in the U.S.
He plans on fighting in front of a larger (possibly outdoor) crowd in Ukraine this summer, according to Loeffler. So facing a European cruiserweight would certainly make sense. And with the political tension between Russia and Ukraine, national symbols like Lomachenko and Usyk could succeed in filling large soccer stadiums with their countrymen.
“He’s very proud of his Ukrainian heritage and that’s a tough situation over there,” Loeffler said. “He’s originally from Crimea. It’s an active conflict on the border. You don’t really hear about it that much, unfortunately, but it’s still there. I’ve been to Kiev a couple of times since the conflict broke out, and in Kiev you don’t really feel it, but because of the conflict, you definitely sense more of a Ukrainian nationalistic attitude.”
Regardless of what he decides, Usyk’s main goal is to continue to fight—and win—at least three times a year so the public has an opportunity to become familiar with the 30-year-old.
“Keeping him active, that’s how we built Triple-G,” Loeffler said. “He was so active and fighting all over the world. That’s how his star was really built—especially focusing in America. We’re hoping to take Usyk down a similar path.
“He’s a very marketable and exciting personality,” Loeffler added.
And with more exposure, longtime promoter Bob Arum agreed, Usyk will inevitably endear himself to boxing fans everywhere.
“He’s a lovely kid,” said Arum. “Very smart, like [all Ukrainians], and delightful person. He has a world of talent.”
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